“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

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It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.

She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.

I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.

I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.

And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.

Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”

To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, she started to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.

But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?

I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.

After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.

She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.

Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).

By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.” 

So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.

Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).

Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.

Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”

It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:

I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”

Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Walking alone
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”

 

And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …
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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” Godzilla (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Godzilla, Warner Brothers’ reboot of the classic Japanese movie monster, is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong. I was highly entertained, even entranced, but I also feel like I was just hit over the head by a 2X4 for the last two hours.

Like the similar postmodern reinvention in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or even, for that matter, this spring’s Noah), Godzilla, directed with a surprisingly sure hand by relative newcomer Gareth Edwards, is positioned as pointed popcorn allegory for how abysmally we humans treat this planet and the ungodly vengeance Mother Nature should unleash on us self-important ants.

In all fairness, Toho Studios’ original Godzilla series took its cues from a mid-century world traumatized by the threat of nuclear Armageddon (as evidenced by the real-life bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima), so Edwards is just following that argument to its logical post-9/11, post-global warming, post-Inconvenient Truth conclusion.

The 2014 edition (let’s all just agree to forget the inane Jurassic Park-meets-Independence Day debacle that was 1998’s Matthew Broderick-starring effort) is a tension-filled marvel. Edwards wisely gives us plenty of footage of the titular “monster” and his battles with the Mothra-esque MUTO creatures, but he keeps the shots murky and smoke-filled, the pacing methodically coiled, and the shocks Hitchockian in their “did I see that or didn’t I?” simplicity. Alexandre Desplat’s score is brain-thumpingly martial.

The narrative is straight-up Saturday afternoon matinee with a healthily cynical gloss of 21st century ecological nightmare. The first half of the movie is all set up as we are introduced to a scientist (a hammy Bryan Cranston saddled with an epically bad hairpiece … guess the budget got eaten up by CGI) who loses his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a tragic nuclear power plant accident that may or may not be giant-lizard-related. Flash-forward 15 years, and Cranston’s now-adult son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, all grown up from his Kick-Ass years and looking like a steroidal Joaquin Phoenix) has tired of his papa’s conspiratorial theories as to what really offed mama.

There’s a gibberish-spewing Japanese scientist (an awfully wooden Ken Watanabe) and a gibberish-spewing British scientist (the always crackerjack Sally Hawkins) and an authoritatively gibberish-spewing American general (the genius David Strathairn who could make tax code seem fascinating).

At one point in the film, Watanabe says to Strathairn: “The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” (I loved that!)

I kept expecting Kevin McCarthy or Gene Barry to show up wearing fedoras covering up their sweaty brows as they rattled through unnecessarily expository dialogue (see: 1953’s War of the Worlds or 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers… but preferably if you are 10 years old and it’s 1982 and there is nothing else on television).

Of course, Taylor-Johnson has chosen a military career, much to the chagrin of his academic dad. He is returning from service in some unidentified locale, eager to reignite all-American family time with his perpetually anxious wife (Elizabeth Olsen, spinning gold out of a thankless role) and his toddler son. As mayhem ensues and the various screaming creatures destroy Honolulu … and Las Vegas … and San Francisco … somehow Taylor-Johnson’s character managers to be in every setting, save the day, and find another means of transport to get him closer to home. Ah, Hollywood logic.

But, here’s the thing … it all works, pretty marvelously. There are no winky-nudge-nudge sexist/racist/xenophobic Michael Bay-style jokes/asides/quips and the carnage (while PG-13 friendly) is believable and haunting (and any movie that blows up Las Vegas is ok in my book). The pacing is ominous and steady and relentless, and, without being a shrill polemic, the film reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that how we treat (or mis-treat) this planet has dire consequences for us all …

In this case, primordial creatures who’ve lived in the earth’s core for eons until the lure of radioactive weapons and waste draw them out will obliterate us all in some kind of H.P. Lovecraft/Ray Bradbury fever dream … but, hey, I said it was an allegory!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Quick Cut: “Praise of shadows and darkness” – Complicite’s production Shun-kin

[Image Source: ums.org]

Director Simon McBurney in his director’s note for his Complicite theatre company’s production Shun-kin uses the phrase “praise of shadows and darkness.” He speaks of a time and a culture where beauty could be found in the concealed and in the unknown. The production is currently running through Saturday at Ann Arbor’s Power Center, presented by the University Musical Society (UMS) – ticket info and times can be found here.

In all transparency, this isn’t a review but more a shameless plug for Michiganders to go check out this remarkable performance that beautifully blends the theatrical and the cinematic. McBurney, clearly a student of Peter Brook (The Empty Space), fuses puppetry, sound sculpture, rear projection, a fourth (and possibly fifth!) wall smashed to bits, stylized movement to create a breathtaking stage allegory of age, gender, class tensions.

The show, based on a text by Junichiro Tanizaki, details an “almost-folk-tale” of the symbiotic relationship between a blind young woman and her devoted caretaker and of the tragic push-pull of a relationship that was both doomed and inevitably perfect from the start.

Thanks to Ken Fischer of UMS for including me in the opening night festivities, and, as a result, inspiring one of the few “high art” entries anyone is likely to see on this blog! I don’t want to spoil the surprises for you, so please check out this show. I’ve never experienced a performance that marries the visceral drama of a rock concert with the quiet, restrained soulfulness of haiku. This one does. Go see it. As UMS’ tagline reads, “Be Present.”

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P.S. Enjoy fellow transplanted Ann Arbor-ite Nan Bauer’s take on the show here. A quote: “Throughout the performance, I had the feeling that it could suddenly make sense in an instant. It did, at the very end, a marvelous bit of drama that can only be achieved on a stage with a live audience.” Great piece!

Narrative of isolation and persecution: The Wolverine

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People may have forgotten, but, for better or worse, this current cinematic superhero love affair began its decade-plus-long courtship with a little movie directed by Bryan Singer in 2000 … X-Men.

That movie introduced the world to a new kind of comic book film that made superheroes seem just like us but with just a few extra gifts (e.g. flight, claws, invisibility, flame-throwing…you know…the usual stuff). These imminently identifiable characters exuded angst and anxiety about trying to fit in, in spite of or perhaps in reaction to humanity’s general aversion to if not outright loathing of difference and of talent.

The movie also introduced many of us to a gifted Aussie named Hugh Jackman, whose truly exceptional musical theatre skills and talk show host charm somehow translated brilliantly to a scruffy, violent, pissed off, immortal Canadian named Logan, nicknamed “The Wolverine.”

Some might argue that it was Jackman’s likeability as the be-clawed mutant anti-hero that propelled the X-Men film series to global dominance. I would agree. And miraculously Jackman’s sparkling career has defied being derailed subsequently by some colossal missteps – both within that franchise as well as some other choices, namely X-Men: Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Australia, and … Kate & Leopold.

Now, coming off his Oscar-nominated triumph in last year’s Les Miserables (he should have won!), Jackman reunites with director James Mangold (Kate & Leopold‘s helmer, plus 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line, among others) to return to his career-launching role in this summer’s The Wolverine.

So how is it? Quite good actually. Blessedly, like earlier films set in the X-Men universe, there is a focus on the narrative of isolation and persecution (as opposed to selling as many action figures as possible at Wal-Mart). Jackman’s inherent kindness always underlies/accentuates the deep-seated sadness and disappointment that Logan/Wolverine carries from his nearly 200 years viewing man’s inhumanity to man. It makes for a compelling characterization.

The film picks up where X-Men: Last Stand left off, with Logan living in isolation in the Yukon after having murdered true love Jean Grey to save the planet from her out-of-control telekinesis. (Just typing that sentence explains pretty much everything that was wrong with that prior film.)

I have to admit I gave a little cheer when Logan, in the film’s opening sequence, attacks a group of beer-sozzled, stupidly-entitled redneck hunters who have slaughtered his sole companion in the wilderness: a beautiful, (though clearly CGI) lumbering bear.

From there, the film then whizzes to Tokyo where Logan reconnects with a former mentor whose life he saved in the bombing of Nagasaki in WWII. As Chris Claremont/Frank Miller realized thirty plus years ago with their seminal Wolverine comic book miniseries, rigid/gracious/mannered Japan makes a marvelous setting to explore the anarchic/raging/righteously indignant traits of this character.

There is nothing terribly groundbreaking about the movie other than this: it is quiet and it is character-driven. Even though it is yet another big, overdone, popcorn-spewing comic book adaptation, there is a lot of deep-feeling dialogue and introspection. Good for Mangold. The movie works hard (sometimes too hard) to dissect how cruel we can be to each other and how a little kindness here or there can make all the difference in one person’s life.

There are some mistakes. The green-haired Viper villain (villainess? is that word even used any more?) should have been sent packing to some other (dumber) movie. And I certainly could have done without the clanging/clunky finale where Logan nonsensically gets his claws chopped off by a gleaming Transformer-esque Silver Samurai (sad misuse of that character) and then fights … and fights … and fights.

Regardless, 75% of the film is atmospheric and engaging and fun … and, hopefully, will give Jackman’s career a five year boost so he can do another musical or two … before he has to step into his mutant boots again.

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P.S. For my Ann Arbor friends, we had dinner at a new place around the corner from The Rave Theater (or whatever it’s called these days). The restaurant is Elevation Burger, and, for us vegetarians, they offer not one but two different kinds of handmade veggie burgers, both of which are excellent. We chatted with franchise owner-manager Mike Tayter for a bit, and the sensibility of the restaurant is very caring and conscientious and earth-friendly. I’m not a “foodie” in any sense (in fact, I hate that cloying expression) but I did want to pass along the recommendation.

Fair and fizzy assessment of a coquette-in-candyland: Katy Perry’s Part of Me

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Throw in one part Madonna’s “Truth of Dare” and one part Miley Cyrus’ “Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds” and one part Zooey Deschanel’s “New Girl,” add a pinch of the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and a smidge of Tim Burton’s unfortunate 3D fantasia “Alice in Wonderland,” stir, bake accompanied by an infectious pop soundtrack…and voila…you have Katy Perry’s new concert documentary “Part of Me.”

We all more or less already knew Katy was an intensely likable personality with a knack for marrying catchy melody and zany “coquette-in-Candyland” visuals, but we probably didn’t realize how deep-feeling she could be or how sad and challenged her life had been. Yes, the film, like “Truth or Dare” before it, is a calculated play to humanize (and expand the brand of) its central pop heroine. Unlike that film, there is an authenticity to Perry (benefiting no doubt from 20+ years of us all living out loud, online, and through the self-aware guise of reality TV) that Madonna couldn’t/can’t effect.

Your heart genuinely breaks for Perry when the de facto villain of the piece Russell Brand (standing in for Warren Beatty from the Madonna film) ends their marriage. (One of her handlers remarks at one point, “Katy keeps leaving the tour to go see him…when is he going to ever travel to her?”) You also wonder how overbearing her fundamentalist religious upbringing must have been when you meet her traveling minister mom and dad who resemble even scarier versions of Sharon Osbourne and Swifty Lazar. Finally you leave the theatre with an uplift when Katy “conquers” all to sing triumphant versions of her hits “Firework” and “California Gurls.” (Oh-kay, that last bit may be a bit overstated since she is dressed like a giant peppermint at the time.)

The film is a lot of fun, and, yes, a bit contrived…and completely unnecessary to view in up-charged 3D. (2D will do just fine, thank you very much.) All in all, though, it is a fair and fizzy assessment of a pop star on the ascent, one of the few for whom you genuinely wish a happy and successful life. Just be prepared (with earplugs) for the shrieks that may emanate from some of your fellow audience members (the 12 and under crowd) when Justin Bieber makes the requisite appearance onscreen. Ugh.